OH DEAR SILVIA by Dawn French

Review copy kindly supplied by Penguin Books NZ via Booksellers New Zealand.

Dawn French - everyone's funny lady, mainstay of British light television, and yet, like many comedians, also brilliant at serious thought, producing work that has considerably more depth to it than the laughs generated. Should we be surprised then that her second book is a serious book? Poignant and reflective, it highlights how in life the wires that hold our relationships with family and those dear to us can become quite tenuous, and how difficult it can be to repair those bonds. And that is often because we don't know what caused them to bend and break in the first place, so of course can't then fix them.

This story is all about Silvia, and how every single meaningful relationship she has had in her life is in absolute tatters. Strangely, Silvia is in a coma, lying in a hospital bed, in a vegetative state. So, rightly or wrongly, we never actually hear from Silvia herself as to how or why she is in this current predicament. For the purposes of the story she is a prop, but a prop who is the focus of the visitors that come to see her, to talk/shout/cry/reflect/scream/laugh, as they come to terms with the fact that Silvia may not be around for too much longer.

The cast of 'loved ones' is not huge, but varied and rich in complexity, damaged and vengeful, loving and protective, hurt and sad. So through their stories, we find out exactly how Silvia ended up in this small hospital room facing her own demise. There is her ex-husband Ed, her estranged daughter Cassie and absent son Jamie, her older, completely bonkers sister Jo, her lover Cat, her cleaner Tia, and overseeing all with her warmth and humanity the gorgeous nurse Winnie who, a bit like the chorus that features in Greek theatre, holds the whole thing together. 

But let us not forget that the book has been written by a woman renowned for her comedy, both in writing and performing. This story reeks of Dawn French's voice. This may be distracting for some, but I loved it. I could hear her voice saying large chunks of the dialogue or even doing an audio version of the book. I could see in my mind's eye exactly how the nutty sister Jo looks and behaves. There are some truly hilarious moments in this story, that may well have you laughing out loud. There is a page of exquisite writing when Ed is looking at Silvia's hands lying on outside of the sheets - a page of writing about her hands - how do you make a page of writing about a pair of hands so beautiful? But it epitomises so gently and poignantly the intimacy of a marriage or relationship. We know from her comedy how cleverly Dawn French captures the human condition, and here she shows she can also do it in writing.

This is a great read, not too deep, not too shallow, but with just enough pathos, loose endings tied up, and the power of love and forgiveness to make it amazingly satisfying. Ah yes, you think when you finish it, that had a little bit of everything, and in just the right quantities.

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